Monday, January 2, 2017

Review: Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin

Penguin Books. 2007. 528 pages
It has been said that a biography (and historical narratives in general) tell us more about the time in which and the audiences for which it is written than about the subject under scrutiny. Michael Millgate wrote two Hardy biographies, spaced some two decades apart in time, as well as restoring Hardy's autobiography from the poorly-edited pseudepigraphical biography, published under Florence Hardy's name, that it had been for the five decades prior to his involvement with the work. One might suggest that Millgate's treatment of Hardy was more historical than biographical as he felt a compulsion to unearth all of the resources that had been buried under Hardy's compulsion to control the narrative about his life. His work answers the questions, "What can be known about Thomas Hardy and how shall we weigh the validity and centrality of the sources available to us?"

Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy asks different questions and answers them for, perhaps, a different audience than Millgate's work. Her take on Hardy is more narrative than exhaustive, addressing central questions surrounding Hardy and his body of work free of the compulsion to overturn every stone and document the contents hidden beneath it. In this sense, she serves as a filter for Millgate's work, producing a biography aimed the uninitiated rather than specialists seeking to expand the framework of Hardy scholarship.

The most notable focus to Tomalin's narrative is the close scrutiny on Emma Hardy's diaries as a barometer for the internal pressures of the couple's difficult marriage. Tomalin's picture of the relationship as it evolved over the course of their lives is more nuanced than the one Millgate presents, if only because of her greater interest in it. The close reading of Emma's personal writing can sometimes take on the quality of text-based biblical criticism as Tomalin often invites us to infer feelings and resentments between them from what is not said. All told, this aspect of the book does offer a more robust picture of the relationship that would define much of Hardy's later poetry in absentia.

The rest of the book, however, feels like retreading ground already exhaustively covered by Millgate. Tomalin is the more lyrical writer between them and, for someone who only wants to read one book about Thomas Hardy, there would be no reason not to choose this one. Her reading of Hardy's work in conjunction with his personal narrative is often insightful and demonstrates clearly her commitment to her subject.

Perhaps there is an apples-to-oranges unfairness in comparing the work of one writer who has dedicated his scholarly life to a subject to that of another who interest is more journalistic, seizing upon a subject for the time it takes to write a credible biography before moving on to her next book but that's kind of where I ended up with Tomalin's Thomas Hardy. It was engaging enough to move me from introduction to conclusion. It made me rethink a few of my own ideas about the Hardy's marriage. It was written well-enough that reabsorbing information with which I was already familiar was no more tedious than it needed to be. But, at the end of the book, I didn't feel like I had so much learned more about Thomas Hardy as I had examined the particular intersection of elements to his life story that would compel Tomalin to write about him.